You’ve probably heard the saying: there’s two things in life you can’t avoid — death and taxes. For two things that can’t be avoided, we don’t seem to like talking about them. While it’s understandable that not too many people enjoy talking about taxes, I have been wondering why there’s a reluctance to talk about death. And it was in an unexpected arena recently where I was challenged to question my own reluctance to talk about death, but to also question my previous handling of it in a personal sense.
One of my teachers at university has a wonderful habit of starting each editing class with a general knowledge session (as editors, we need to have sound general knowledge so we are able to pick up on anomalies in manuscripts and check for factual inconsistencies). A few weeks ago, she asked that we research some terms that she had written on the whiteboard. There was a general theme in the terms — that of death and dying, mostly with a World War I/II reference. This laid the foundation for the extended discussion on death and dying that she so bravely approached in our most recent class.
Both of her parents succumbed to cancer in the last ten years. Some say time heals all wounds, but I question the validity of this when a close family member, or friend, or even family pet passes on. It might get easier to deal with over time, but the pain of losing someone close never goes away. Each time you’re reminded of this person (or pet), you might find a tear forming in your eye, or a choking feeling developing in your throat. My teacher did exactly this as she began to talk of the final weeks of her father’s life. Recounting how she and her sister sat by his side, trying to feed him when he didn’t want to eat (or couldn’t), when he didn’t want to drink, when he waited for the palliative care nurse to show up before he would relieve himself so that he didn’t have to make his daughters clean up after him. She choked back tears as she spoke of these things — obviously time has not healed the wounds of having to witness her father slowly waste away, but this did not stop her standing up in front of 20 or so postgrad students and expose the raw truth of what it is to embrace a situation that is clearly not in your control. I was so amazed at her strength — she has previously mentioned to me that she is an introvert and even with ten years’ worth of teaching experience, the fear of standing up in front of a class and teaching has not subsided; yet, here she was, opening up her rawest emotions in front of us, presumably to show us why death is to be embraced, rather than avoided.
It struck me instantly of how differently I handled my grandfather’s passing some years ago. While the circumstances were somewhat different to my teacher’s experience — my grandfather was a shell of himself after suffering through dementia, diabetes which affected his sight and a stroke which affected his independence — it still made me question my handling of the situation and why I acted in this way. As you watch someone close to you slowly fade away, you want nothing more than for them to jump out of bed and resume their previous activities. You know it’s not going to happen and that is part of the sadness. I visited my grandfather in the nursing home — where he was restrained to his bed to protect both himself and the nursing home staff. The dementia and stroke had made him violent; he was lashing out at the confusing place he had found himself in. He couldn’t remember me anymore and he would cry every now and again. I couldn’t see this — my once-strong, independent grandfather, who got on a boat from Italy all those years ago, by himself, to start a new life here in Melbourne and here he now was, breathing but not living. So, I stopped going to visit. I couldn’t handle this experience any longer. I regret that now.
As my teacher spoke of the beauty that she saw in caring for her father as he went through his final days, I thought about the way I shied away from it. I obviously wasn’t ready to deal with such a situation but I now wonder if my grandfather noticed that I (and maybe some others) stopped going to visit and whether he knew why, even though it was likely he wouldn’t remember any of that. I’m not even sure that the next time I’m faced with this situation that I’ll act any differently. I hope I will, but it’s one of those times in life that there’s surely no script for. How can you possibly prepare yourself for watching a loved one die? One thing is for sure though — we can’t be scared to talk about it and we can’t keep hoping that it won’t happen to us. The sad reality is that it will. I’m not suggesting it need be a daily topic of conversation, but it needs to be discussed at some point. Maybe talking about death before you’re faced with it makes you more ready to deal with it? I don’t know, but the awkwardness of not talking about it won’t make you ready to deal with it either.
This extends to helping friends deal with loss too. I’ve had a few friends recently experience the loss of a loved one and I’m always unsure what I should say or what I should do. Again, I don’t think there’s a script for this, but ignoring the situation doesn’t help anyone. While I’m conscious of not sounding generic when sending messages of hope or support, I need to remind myself that this situation isn’t about me, and that any act of compassion or support is probably greatly appreciated. My teacher spoke of taking food to the person looking after their loved one in their final days — even pet food if they have pets. They still need to eat and probably aren’t thinking of their next trip to the supermarket. Any little act of kindness surely goes a long way to that person who is obviously so preoccupied with the care of their loved one.
Feel free to continue to avoid talking about taxes, but let’s talk about death. Let’s try to help each other deal with an unavoidable grief and sense of helplessness, while hopefully reassuring the person who is passing that their final days will be as fulfilling as their strong days. Try to cherish each day that they are still here, don’t shy away from it. You won’t get a second go at it.